- New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration by Judith Weisenfeld
Judith Weisenfeld's New World A-Coming is a deeply researched and well-theorized analysis of black religious groups that emerged between the end of the First, and the beginning of the Second World War: Moorish Science Temple of America, Nation of Islam, Father Divine's Peace Mission Movement, and Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation (more generally, Black Israelite groups). Emerging in cities like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Newark, among others, these religious groups had an influence that was greater than their actual [End Page 152] numbers within African American communities. This book is the first work since Arthur Fauset's Black Gods of the Metropolis (1944) to treat them in this comprehensive way, although Weisenfeld does not address Holiness and Pentecostal groups, and takes a much longer historical view than Fauset (who did field work among the various groups).
Weisenfeld refers to these religious groups as religio-racial movements, by which she means that they were committed to "understanding individual and collective identity as constituted in the conjunction of religion and race" (5). They held a common conviction that people of African descent could only achieve their collective salvation by embracing their true and divinely ordained identity. This self-and-group belief was crucial to their theological beliefs and religious practices.
The book is organized thematically, giving us a sense not only of what the leaders of these groups believed and practiced, but also what the lived experience of everyday practitioners was, why they joined, and what they found compelling in these groups. The book is divided into three parts: narratives, selfhood, and community. In the section on narratives, Weisenfeld digs deeply into how geographies of space and time were constructed and understood by these religio-racial movements. In the same section, she looks at their narratives of sacred time and conceptions of divine history. In each case, Weisenfeld shows how these groups, although with different theologies and variant understandings of race, sought to transcend their situation in the United States, where their history and circumstances were circumscribed by racial oppression and an official narrative of subordination based on either explicit claims of racial inferiority or implicit notions of unfortunate enslavement, which, in their view, tethered their history to debasement and shame.
In the second part of the book, Weisenfeld examines the ways in which naming practices and adornment and maintenance of the body helped shape participants into "fit" members of each group. The final section looks at their respective understandings of family (with much attention focused especially on Father Divine's Peace Mission's more stringent demands to break from biological families and practice sex-segregated celibate lifestyles for new members) and their conception of space and place, especially how the United States figured in their racial and religious imagination.
This book is the most thorough and sophisticated treatment of the emergence and early development of these religio-racial movements. It deepens our understanding of the impact of the Great Migration on black religious life while enriching our knowledge of the debates about black religious identity in this fluid moment. Weisenfeld is careful to note that although she organizes her work around these movements, there is a way in which all religious groups in the United States can be characterized as religio-racial, given the powerful ways in which race has structured religious beliefs, practices, and institutions for all Americans. Yet her book focuses particular attention on a set of black religious movements that explicitly called for all black Americans to reject the classification "Negro," which they believed was a false category created and foisted upon them for the purposes of enslavement and subordination. They offered alternative identities both to members and to black people as a whole. Weisenfeld's illuminating and thorough book provides rich details about the various ways in which these movements differed in addressing the problem of race in the United States.
Weisenfeld argues that while rejecting...